Can functional plant traits predict vegetation distribution of South African ecosystems?

Ms Nicola Kühn1, Prof Kathy Willis1, Dr Marc Macias-Fauria1

1University Of Oxford, Oxford, United Kingdom


Trait-based ecology is an increasingly important approach for understanding how different ecosystems will respond to climate change. The mechanisms determining the diversity of species responses to climate change can be inferred through this approach, by focusing on the suite of functional traits that mediate plant survival under a set of environmental conditions.

Under this framework, comparisons across different ecosystems and biomes with different species compositions can be made, due to the focal unit being traits and not species. Further, trait-based methods can address intra-specific variability in trait composition, expression and resulting response to environmental change. In South African ecosystems this is important because of the diversity of drivers (including disturbances like fire, herbivory and drought) encouraging major species and functional diversity and a resulting high diversity of ecosystems . Studies demonstrating trait variation within species occurring in these ecosystems (Carlson et al. 2016) further endorse the validity of this approach for this region.

Our study aims to determine the role that functional plant traits play in determining current and future distributions of vegetation in two diverse south African biomes, Savanna and Fynbos. Using plant trait data available online (TRY and BIEN databases), this work statistically explores trait-environment associations and determines how well current vegetation distribution can be predicted by plant functional traits, presenting an alternative approach to species distribution modelling to predict future vegetation distribution under different climate scenarios.


Nicola is a PhD candidate at the University of Oxford in the School of Geography and the Environment. She has a background in Ecology, with a BSc undergraduate and BSc postgraduate Honours degree from the University of Cape Town and an MSc in Biodiversity, Conservation and Management from the University of Oxford. Her current research focuses on the role of plant functional traits in determining plant response to climate change, particularly in South African ecosystems expected to become warmer and drier.

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The conference brings together scientists and natural resource managers working in the disciplines of global change, biogeography and evolution, and relevant in contexts of natural resource management, biodiversity management and conservation, and theoretical ecology.

Species responses to climate change is a rapidly evolving research field, however, much of our progress is being made in independent research areas: e.g. understanding the process vs responding to the implications, terrestrial vs marine ecosystems, global meta-analyses vs in depth species-specific approaches. This interdisciplinary conference develops connections between these parallel streams, and across temporal and spatial scales.

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